Airstrikes, as we saw in the open desert of Libya during the 2011 intervention, are better suited against militaries concentrating and moving in open areas than against local militias that have taken root. Take foir instance Raqaa, the headquarters of the Islamic State’s caliphate. There’s no way an air assault in that urbanized and populated environment would work.
The idea that a bombing campaign alone — even if it’s devastating and sustained — will seriously check, let alone defeat, IS in Syria is a flat-out illusion. And I say this knowing all of the Islamic State’s many weaknesses: a governing ideology that alienates; weak or nonexistent opponents; and the absence of deep roots and legitimacy in Syria. The Islamic State has drawn support not just from Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of Sunnis, but from former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s repressive policies toward Iraq’s Sunnis. Indeed, IS’s roots are in Mesopotamia and lead back to Abu Musab Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It’s not a coincidence that the megalomaniacal “Caliph Ibrahim” is actually named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Damascus or Raqaa may important but it’s only a means to achieve the more important goal — a caliphate based in Baghdad.
Still, IS is now ensconced in its host Syrian environment like a barnacle attached to the side of a boat. If you believe that it can be defeated or rolled back without a major ground campaign either by the United States or its allies on the ground and without the emergence of stable and good governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, I’ve got a great tip on some yellow cake in Niger I’d like to sell you.